Sunday, April 4, 2010

Things I Learned from Die Hard, Part V: Planting, the Writer's Time Machine

There is a concept mentioned in a number of books on screenwriting called “Plant & Payoff.” The thing that makes the concept hard for beginning screenwriters to understand is that these books seem to present this tool as something the writer should apply superficially onto his or her storytelling as a way of “spicing things up,”or perhaps as a way to impress the audience with what wonderful intelligence and foresight the storyteller had in order to hide clues throughout the script like an easter egg hunt, stitching one end of the story to another. These books seem to imply that when constructing a story, the writers should already have this collection of marvelous plants in their heads ahead of time, already mapped out in a linear fashion, “I'm going to plant some information in Scene 12, and then pay it off in Scene 33.” This approach not only doesn't work, but it is not what this device is intended for.

Plants can be a marvelous tool for screenwriters, but they do not work this way. The writer should not create them in a forward-moving manner where the writer comes up with a planting device and then later in the story comes up with a way to pay it off. Real plant and payoff works by moving backwards.

Planting comes into play when the storyteller has managed to paint the character in a corner, putting him or her into a situation where the only way out would be for something to happen that would be arbitrary, implausible, or come right out of the blue. The only way the storyteller can solve this problem and create a solution that seems natural and organic is by going BACK in the script and setting up information (the “plant”) that will make the solution to the character's problem not only seem plausible, but logically inevitable.

This process is called back-planting. It is not a way to spice things up, it is not a way to make your storytelling seem intelligent or clever, it is instead the cinematic storytellers' #1 tool to working a way out of the impossible jams and dead-ends in their story. One good back-plant can save an entire stymied storyline and allow the storyteller to keep moving forward to the story's end.


In the process of creating the storyline for Die Hard, the script's writers Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza (working separately) no doubt ran into some difficult problems when it came time to make some of their ideas work. They had plenty of great ideas, scenes they wanted to happen, action stunts they wanted to see on screen, but the problem was to set up these ideas in a way that would make them believable. True, the writers wanted some amazing, unbelievable things to happen, but in order for them to work on screen, each unbelievable thing must make logical sense, the audience must be able to see that in the context of the story and all of what has happened up to this point, that this bizarre event makes perfect sense.

Usually when a writer gets “stuck” in their storyline, it happens because they have painted their character into a corner and the only way out is to have something implausible happen. Audiences cry 'bullshit' and turn on a movie when storytellers pull solutions out of thin air. There cannot be any deus ex machina, the character cannot be wearing his Batman utility belt with its 1001 devices for every possible situation, and help cannot magically arrive from nowhere. 

I have never met Stuart or de Souza, so I have no idea how smoothly Die Hard's writing process went. But in my imagination, here are two examples of story problems the writers might have struggled with:

(NOTE: For the sake of accuracy, I must acknowledge that the script for Die Hard was adapted from the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp. Unfortunately, I am unfamiliar with the novel, so I cannot know how much of the story was adapted from the original source and how much was the invention of the screenwriters. However, for learning purposes, I am going to portray the writing process as if it were a completely original work.)

*The writer has just envisioned the thrilling sequence where John McClane escapes from the homicidal Karl by climbing down an elevator shaft and sliding into an air vent. He wants to continue the sequence. They want Karl to know McClane is in the vent and hunt him down, leaving our hero trapped like sardines in a can. There is only one problem: HOW DOES KARL KNOW THAT MCCLANE IS IN THE VENT?

* Late in the writing process, the writer thought it would be great to make John McClane's life suck even worse by having him run barefoot over broken glass. They perhaps became excited over the prospect of creating the scene where McClane has a serious, character-revealing talk with Sgt Powell to distract him from pulling the broken glass from his feet. But there's a problem: WHY THE HECK WOULD MCCLANE BE BAREFOOT?

The writer's can't move forward as long as these problems exist. The only solution is to go backwards.

Do you remember the movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, (1989)? Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter play two boneheaded high school seniors who get caught up in a ridiculous adventure in an attempt to pass history class and graduate. Bill & Ted don't have many brains to help them out of the problems they encounter, but they do have – a time machine. Whenever the two find themselves stuck in a dead-end situation: a door is locked and they have no key, a bad guy has them cornered with no way of escape, their solution is simple: they merely make the mental note to, once everything is all over, get into the time machine, travel back in time, and set up a way to get around the obstacle. They decide to go back into the past, steal the key, and hide it under a rock by the door. They decide to rig a bucket so it will fall on the head of the bad guy when he has them cornered. And viola! Suddenly, everything is solved. They look under the rock and the key is already there. The bucket falls on the bad guy just like they said it would. Bill & Ted get around the obstacle and continue toward their goal.

This is what back-planting is. It is the writer's time machine. It allows the writer to travel backwards in their story and set up information at an earlier time that will work to solve that later problem in a way that is not only logical, but makes perfect sense to the audience.

HOW DOES KARL KNOW THAT MCCLANE IS IN THE VENT? The writer decided to have McClane ignite a zippo lighter in order to see where he is going and have Karl sees the light flickering from the vent's hole in the elevator shaft. But how did McClane get the zippo in the first place? Did he pull it out of his Batman utility belt? To solve this problem, the writers went BACK in time, twelve minutes back in the story to the scene where McClane searches the first dead terrorist and finds the radio. Only this time, McClane finds the zippo as well. When the movie plays forward, the audience sees John take the zippo and stores that information away. When they see McClane later use the lighter to see in the vent, they remember where it came from, and now it makes sense why and how Karl figures out McClane's location.

WHY THE HECK WOULD MCCLANE BE BAREFOOT? It would make no sense to have McClane, in the midst of running for his life in a building full of terrorists take the time to stop and remove his shoes. The only thing that makes sense is that he has his shoes off BEFORE the terrorists invade, and he wasn't able to put them back on. So, the writers traveled backwards, all the way to the middle of the first act and had McClane take off his shoes and socks. But for what reason would he do this? Why would he go barefoot at a fancy corporate party? McClane is supposed to be a tough guy. I don't think he would bother to do that no matter how bad his feet might be hurting him. Again, the writers needed to plant a reason. Travel backwards in time again, to the very first scene in the movie. The writers planted a seemingly innocuous line, which at the time, the audience heard and quickly disregarded. Here, the traveler sitting next to McClane on the airplane sees how tense he is, and he comments that the best way to relieve the stress of air travel is to take off your shoes and socks and “make fists with your toes.”

Play the line of action forward and it all makes perfect sense. The traveler gives McClane some advice. McClane tries that advice just as the terrorists invade. Therefore, McClane is barefoot when he must escape over broken glass. As a result of that, McClane forces Sgt Powell to talk to him to distract him from the pain of digging the glass out of his feet, resulting in Powell revealing a big character secret. The writers traveled all the way back to Scene 1 to make Scene 154 work.


Hans and his team do not show up until minute 17 of the story. Until then, Die Hard's story is driven by the subplot, the conflict between John McClane and Holly. John and Holly's marriage has not been going well. John is upset that Holly is now going by her maiden name Gennaro. When Holly telephones home and learns that John still hasn't even bothered to call, she turns down her family photo of him in anger. To the audience, both of these behaviors make perfect sense. They are both the natural outcome of an endangered marriage. And as far as the audience knows, both of these things have no meaning beyond John & Holly's marriage. There is no need for them to. But it is not until Hans and his men invade that we learn their REAL story importance.

The big question is, how does a writer plant story information without it looking like a plant? How can you set up information without the audience realizing it is being set up and predict what will happen ahead of time? How does one hide the plant to keep it from being obvious?

In early drafts, the writers most likely encountered a problem that went something like this: Holly is one of Hans' hostages. Hans is willing to do anything to stop John. At a certain point in the story, Hans learns John's name and identity from Ellis. Once Hans knows John's last name is McClane, what is to stop him from instantly realizing that this Holly McClane is John's wife? What is to keep Holly safe? Hans couldn't just not notice. He's supposed to be too smart for that.

So the writer came up with a solution that works so well, one that is entirely plausible, because it has already been established in a pre-existing character conflict. Holly's use of her maiden name isn't just a cause for friction between her and John, it also turns out to coincidently be the one thing that helps keep Holly alive.

John and Holly's argument over the use of her maiden name in Act One, Holly turning over the family photograph of John, isn't just the execution of inter-character conflict, it isn't just a device to communicate character information, it is more importantly two perfect examples of a DOUBLE-PRONGED PLANT. “Double-pronged” because it is information that has dual significance in two different, unrelated areas: one here in the present, and a far more important one in the future.

A double-pronged plant works to invisibly set up a piece of information that will become very important later in the story (but not now) by masking it as something IMMEDIATELY relevant to the current conflict at hand. The audience does not see the plant, they never suspect that they are being “set up,” because they believe that the information's only use is the current one, the smaller conflict going on upon the screen at the moment. Then, later in the story, that piece of information- info that may have been lying dormant for quite some time- is revealed to have far more significance than the audience could have ever imagined. The audience is shocked and delighted as they are finally allowed to put two and two together- not so much by the plot twist itself, but because the information has been lying right under their noses the whole time.

After Hans the the terrorists invade Nakatomi Tower, the audience all but forgets John & Holly's arguments. That is until the Act Two scene where we find that Hans has taken residence in Holly's office. We see Holly's nervous glance to the overturned photo behind her desk. We hear Hans ask her name and her respond with Holly Gennaro. Suddenly, it all comes back to the audience. The plant is paid off, not only with a revelation, but with SUSPENSE. Suspense, because the payoff's revelation raises questions: Will Hans find out the truth? What will happen when he does? For every scene with Hans seated at that desk, that overturned photograph becomes a ticking timebomb waiting to blow everything apart. And it all started with a simple, logical action that happened only because it was true to Holly's character and the conflict at hand.


This has been the fifth and final article in my “Things I Learned from Die Hard” series. As of this date, I have spent something close to eight months watching DH, analyzing DH, and writing about DH. I have probably put more thought into this movie than anyone since the movie was originally made. And as said before, I have probably learned more through the process than I ever did in four years of film school. But the things I have learned are in no way exclusive to this movie, or solely to movies in its genre. The lessons learned from this tightly constructed, entertaining action flick can be applied to any story anywhere. It is just good craft.

Die Hard is a testament that brilliance in writing can be found even in the most mass-audience pleasing, explosion filled, genre movie you can find. Excellent writing and summer blockbusters do not have to be mutually exclusive. Die Hard became an icon of its genre because it worked. Its plot worked. Its characters worked. The way its scenes were constructed worked. The relationship it forged and maintained with its audience worked. All of Hollywood's ensuing attempts to imitate Die Hard failed because they tried to copy Die Hard's content, but not its form. It's form is universal. It can be applied to any story in any genre. Hollywood, in its attempt to print off its carbon copies, failed because it did not realize one simple fact; writers Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza, as well as director John McTiernan found success because they knew how to CREATIVELY COMMUNICATE their story's information in a way that served the audience's needs. When it came to the atoms of cinema, they were master chemists. They knew how to arrange their atoms to excite the audience, arouse their curiosity, fear, and desire, manipulate the audience's mind on a fantastic emotional journey. And that's all ANY movie needs to do.

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